Supreme Court to hear case of U.S. air marshal fired for leaking info to MSNBC
The US Supreme Court, pictured on Nov. 6, 2013 in Washington, DC (AFP)

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would weigh whether the federal government rightly fired a U.S. air marshal for disclosing sensitive information to the news media.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal filed by the administration of President Barack Obama, which was seeking review of an appeals court ruling in favor of the whistleblower, Robert MacLean.

Oral arguments and a decision are due in the court's next term, which begins in October and ends in June 2015.

In 2003, MacLean told an MSNBC reporter that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had decided not to assign air marshals to certain long-distance flights, a decision he disagreed with. He said the decision was made soon after the agency told marshals of a potential plot to hijack U.S. airplanes.

The events took place in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, in which Islamic militants hijacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia.

The legal question is whether MacLean's actions are protected by the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. That law protects employees if a disclosure exposes unlawful conduct, gross mismanagement or threats to public safety.

The government said the TSA had grounds to remove MacLean from his position in 2006 because of the sensitive nature of the disclosures, which were specifically prohibited under agency regulations.

In an April 2013 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled for MacLean, saying the federal Aviation and Transportation Security Act did not specifically prohibit him from making the disclosure. The court left open the question of whether MacLean could be protected under the whistleblower law.

In court papers, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Obama's top lawyer before the Supreme Court, said the appeals court ruling paved the way for other employees to "go public with internal disagreement about how best to allocate finite security resources."

Such disclosures "put lives in danger by identifying the areas that have received fewer resources," he said.

The case is Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-894.

(Editing by Howard Goller and Bernadette Baum)